In sports that entail acrobatic skills such as gymnastics, cheerleading, dance, diving, ski jumping, and more, the ultimate objective for the athletes is to learn skills that have both flipping and twisting elements. These skills are highly advanced and requires that the athlete has learned basic skills with great technique. In this discussion, I will take you through my thoughts on the development stages of learning to twist in tumbling skills.
As the students progress through the developmental stages of learning to tumble forward and backward, the next step is to learn how to incorporate twisting movements. These skills are much more complex and requires that the athletes have proper technique in their developmental skills in order to accomplish these twisting elements.
Body positioning and control is critical in allowing the athlete to twist while the body is in a forward or backward flipping motion. For example, to spin a pencil on its end is an easy task as the pencil is a solid, straight object. However, it is impossible to spin a shoe string as there is no solid control of the object. The same with our bodies, if the student has loose and limp body movements, it will be very challenging or impossible to twist. This is the reason why body position and body tightness is a major focus in training all skills.
I consider the cartwheel to be the initial movement learned that relates to twisting skills. A critical key to acknowledge, which is commonly overlooked, is to determine which direction the student needs to perform the skill. Why? because this is the direction that should be consistent throughout the entire lifetime of progressive skill development. So how do we determine which direction to go? It is irrelevant if the student is right hand or left hand dominate.
I have always believed that what ever feels most natural for the athlete is the direction they should pursue. In fact, a majority of athletes twist in the opposite direction of their dominate hand – it is more natural. Let me explain: when a right-handed person throws or kicks a ball, the body actually moves and turns to the left while performing the action. Thus, for many people, it is natural for the body to turn in this direction.
However, this rule does not apply to every athlete. When I have a beginner student learning a cartwheel for the first time, I will ask them to spin around. The direction of their spin is a good indication of what direction may come natural for them. So I have the student try this direction first. If they struggle, I have them try the other way. Trial and error seems to work best to figure out which way to go. And once it is determined, that way should stay permanent.
Once the athlete determines the direction of the cartwheel, either left or right, it is critical that all progressive skills follow the same direction. If the student is what we call a “righty” this means the right leg will lead in all skills. This includes lunge to handstands, round-offs, front walk-overs, front handsprings, etc. I have seen, on several occasions, an athlete perform their round-off with one leg leading, however, perform a front walkover and front handspring with the other leg. This will create a challenge for the student to connect tumbling elements.
The round-off is the next progressive skill to learn following the cartwheel. This is a very complex element to learn and there is much discussion among coaches on the challenges of learning this skill properly. This skill must be accomplished correctly with great technique in order for the student to connect additional skills – like the back handspring. An entire post can be dedicated to this one skill.
What is the purpose of the round-off? It is the skill used to turn forward momentum into backward momentum. It is a twisting element where the body generates a half turn while in an upside down position. Some athletes catch on to this transition quickly, but others may take longer to accomplish.
It is important to recognize that whatever direction the round-off is initiated, either right or left, this is the direction the athlete needs to twist in their connected elements. When the round-off is completed, the movement of the body continues in that same direction which creates a natural smooth transition. For example, let’s look at the cartwheel on the balance beam. If the student is leading the cartwheel with the left leg, the skill will end with the left leg behind the right leg. In this position, the hips are turned slightly to the left creating a left twisting motion.
I have seen many athletes perform their round-offs in one direction and twist in another direction. Although this is not a factor that will create a barrier to excel in tumbling elements, it does have its challenges. For example, it is certainly a challenge and more difficult to learn a round-off to an Arabian front flip or a back full. Performing a back handspring in-between the skills would eliminate this transitional challenge.
As I mentioned earlier, in order for the body to perform a twisting motion, the body must be tight and straight. For back tumbling, this requires the athlete to have great technique in the back layout in order for the body to be able to twist. In order for this to occur, the athlete must have great technique in the round-off and back handspring. These elements set up the layout and twisting skills.
The most common problem that prevents the athlete from twisting is the arched position. If the athlete has an arched position in their layout, the twisting motion is very difficult to achieve. The body must remain in a tight and straight position for the twist to be effective. This scenario goes back to the initial fundamental training for the athlete (Tumbling: Importance of Building a Strong Foundation). With proper training and drills, the students have a greater chance to learn the body control needed to accomplish these skills.
We stress how important it is for the athletes to learn proper technique in all skills – starting from the most basic elements. Since all skills in tumbling are generally related and tend to build upon another, the better the technique, the greater chance the athlete will succeed in learning the more advanced twisting tumbling skills.